Back to Basics

After my post about “How far we’ve come,” I was asked about how I was going to get “back to basics,” what I was going to do to move in the direction of a simpler home.  I could think, immediately, of a few things, but the more I thought about it the more I thought of….so here are some ideas.

First, there’s the obvious:  those moments where I decide that “today I’m going to tackle that drawer…..”  or shelf, or cabinet, etc.  Not an entire closet; just a bite at a time, to make sure I finish what I start.  I’ll go through each item, decide if it’s something we use or if it’s better off blessing someone else, and box or bag up what needs to leave the house.  But that’s only a bit part of the whole.  For lack of a better word, I’m going to call this a “lifestyle adjustment.”  (That sounds really snooty, doesn’t it?  I just mean that there seems to be a need to change how we think about stuff before we can conquer it.)

I also keep brown-paper grocery bags stowed away around the house.  There’s one in our closet, so the minute I try on a shirt I haven’t worn in a while and realize why I haven’t worn it in a while, I can change immediately into something different and add the shirt to the bag.  I keep one in the laundry room closet, so that once I’ve told one of the kids, “Last wearing on those shorts!” (or shirt, or whatever), I can add the item of clothing to the bag the minute it comes out of the wash.  I also have a nice basket on one of the shelves in that closet (about 9×13, and deep), where I put things destined for the thrift store.  This is, admittedly, where fast food toys go to die; but it also holds lots of other things that are preparing to move out the door.

The idea of “one-in-one-out” is gaining ground with the kids; they’ve realized that we’ll take a trip to the used book store if they have a stack of books ready to sell.  This is actually better than one in/one out, since the ratio usually ends up being something like one in/five out; but since they come home with cash they still think they’ve got the better end of the deal.  It’s also become easier with clothing:  we bought you those shoes to replace your worn out ones seems to make a lot of sense to them, and out the trashed ones go.

Finally, though….this is where the “lifestyle adjustment” begins.  I had a friend call recently from a store she was at, offering to pick up water bottles for my kids.  Stainless steel, with the kids’ names on them, on sale for 99 cents.  (99 cents!!)  And I said….no.  Because I know we already have two stainless steel water bottles, one for each kid, plus a Hello Kitty water bottle my daughter kept at school, plus two nice plastic water bottles….you get the idea.  I know we don’t need any more water bottles; regardless of how cool or how cheap (or how thoughtful my friend was).  The reality is, we don’t need a lot of things.  But I have to change my lifestyle; my mindset; my heart about what is a “need” and what is a “want”…..and maybe, at some point, admit where purchasing a “want” might be okay.  I have to change our buying habits; and we weren’t big spenders to begin with.

That’s the hardest part of the process:  the heart change that has to take place to say, “Thank you, Lord, for the abundant blessings you have given me, and now I will be content with that.”  Even better, to say “Thank you, Lord….what would you like me to give away today?  May I be content with less.”

Our legacy

I realized mid-May that I was doing a lot of writing about my kids and their “stuff.”  I attribute it to the end of the school year:  I’m thinking more about them because I realize I’m about to spend almost three full months with them, 24/7, and I’m trying to get to a point where I’m anticipating that, instead of dreading it.  (I’m finally there–just in time.  As I write this, my daughter is done and my son’s last day is tomorrow.)

I want to stop a minute, though, and really think about my kids–all our kids, I guess.  I wonder what they’re learning from us, as they grow up in this country where we’re so blessed and where we take so much for granted.  I wonder what I’m teaching them, as I raise them in this home; in this city and this county of copious conspicuous consumption.  I wonder what kind of an example I’m setting in my daily life, through the choices I make; both big and small.  I wonder what kind of a legacy I’m leaving my little ones (who aren’t really so little anymore).

Am I signaling a constant desire for more?  Am I showing that we never quite have enough?  Are my kids learning that if you don’t like something, pitch it, because you can always buy another?  Am I raising a generation dependent on “disposable” junk?  What would my kids say I value most, people or “stuff”?

I still remember one afternoon when the kids were running around the house in big circles:  hall, living room, kitchen, dining room, repeat.  Over and over, until one of them somehow knocked out a shelf in the bookcase in the dining room.  It’s a low bookcase, with four shelves displaying my collection of white pitchers.  Down the shelf went, along with the pitchers, along with my daughter.  She lay on the floor, howling dramatically, and I ran to check on her, and when I surveyed the scene I had a fleeting, laughing thought:  okay, now is the time to make a good choice, or she will forever remember this moment as the time I checked to see if any of my “stuff” was broken before I found out if she was hurt.  Do I want my kids to remember me as someone who thought “stuff” was more important than people?  That moment I chose wisely.  🙂

But not too long ago, I have to admit, I heard my dog gagging on my “brand new” rug, and I freaked out so badly trying to get him outside that my son called down from upstairs asking what was the matter.  (The rug owns me, that’s what’s the matter.)  That moment I chose….poorly.  I truly hope that my good choices outweigh the bad.  I hope that my kids realize that “stuff” is just “stuff,” nothing more, and that there are things much more important in life.

What do I want to strive for?  What do I want them to learn from me?   What legacy do I want to be leaving them?

“Freely you have received, freely give.”  (Matthew 10:8)

“Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.  Share with God’s people who are in need.”  (Romans 12:12-13)

“Godliness with contentment is great gain.  For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it….pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.”  (I Timothy 6:6-7; 11)

“Be joyful always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (I Thessalonians 5:16-18)

I know I don’t always hit the mark.  But if I can encourage them even a little towards any of these things, if this can be the example I set for my children (and for their friends), then I will have created the legacy I want to leave behind.  If I can continue to hold all these things on this earth with open hands, ready to give and share with others, I have lived as an example that I would be proud of my children to follow.

A Grateful Heart

Our bedtime routines have always included reading.  Even if it’s something short and sweet on a late night, I try to fit in at least a bit of cuddle-with-a-book time.  We used to snuggle in the cushy chair-and-a-half in the corner of the master bedroom; now the kids are bigger and we spread out on the sofa downstairs.  One night my son had discovered a new book on the bookshelf; one I had slid in quietly, intending to see how long it took to be discovered.

It was an enormous book of fairy tales, with incredibly detailed illustrations on each page.  I’d been talking to my mom about how I wanted just a book of “regular fairy tales;” no Disney, no marketing ploys, just the basic stories, and she had found this and bought it for the kids.  And what did my son choose to read that first night of discovering the book?  Hansel and Gretel.

I hesitated.  Hansel and Gretel isn’t exactly a bedtime story.  Let me read to you about a terrible stepmother who’ll lead kids into the woods to die and a wicked witch who eats children….and now let me tuck you in! might not be the best way to end a day.  But I did it.  (I then ended the night with my daughter’s choice, a short board book of nursery rhymes, hoping to soften the blow a bit.)

Then things got interesting.  As I tucked my daughter in that night I asked her, as always, what she was thankful for.  “Mommy and Daddy and my whole life today” (her standard answer) “and food.”  She continued quickly, before I could say anything:  “Not food like dinner.  Food like, we have food.  Hansel and Gretel didn’t have food.”

I sat there for a moment.  My brain was going a million miles a minute:  all the things in that story, the evil stepmother, the candy house, the wicked witch, cooking children, eating children, conquering the witch and making it home safely, and she walks away with….they had no food.  They were poor and hungry; indeed, they were literally starving.  And she was grateful that she had a house full of food.

I made sure that I included in our prayers that night thanks for a kitchen full of food; thanks that God had blessed us with an abundance and that any time we were hungry all we had to do was open the pantry or the fridge and dozens of choices beckoned.  For the rest of the night I looked at things through different eyes:  we have a sturdy house, to keep us warm and dry from the wind and rain.  We have a furnace that works, and (thank goodness) air conditioning when we need it.  We have running water and indoor plumbing and even a yard to play in.  My kids have their own bedrooms. We are so overwhelmingly blessed in our standard, day-to-day life and we so often take it for granted.  I was reminded of the verses in Psalms:  “Lord, you have assigned me my portion and my cup; you have made my lot secure.  The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance.  I will praise the Lord…” (Psalms 16:5-7).  I breathed prayers of thanks and praise not only for all these material things that give me such comfort on a regular basis, but also prayers of thanks for a little girl that reminded me of it.  And I prayed that God would continue to work in her heart in that way:  to make her extraordinarily thankful for even the most basic things and recognize them as the blessings they are.

From Yahoo: “Banker’s $350K Pay Not Enough”

Sometimes blog topics just fall in your lap.

This headline made me roll my eyes–but isn’t that what it was supposed to do?  The article (http://finance.yahoo.com/news/bonus-withdrawal-puts-bankers-malaise-050100338.html) was an interesting read.  Some quotes:

“[Andrew] Schiff, 46, is facing another kind of jam this year: Paid a lower bonus, he said the $350,000 he earns, enough to put him in the country’s top 1 percent by income, doesn’t cover his family’s private-school tuition, a Kent, Connecticut, summer rental and the upgrade they would like from their 1,200-square- foot Brooklyn duplex.”

 

“Facing a slump in revenue from investment banking and trading, Wall Street firms have trimmed 2011 discretionary pay. At Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS) and Barclays Capital, the cuts were at least 25 percent. Morgan Stanley (MS) capped cash bonuses at $125,000, and Deutsche Bank AG (DBK) increased the percentage of deferred pay.

‘It’s a disaster,’ said Ilana Weinstein, chief executive officer of New York-based search firm IDW Group LLC. ‘The entire construct of compensation has changed.’ ”

 

“M. Todd Henderson, a University of Chicago law professor who’s teaching a seminar on executive compensation, said the suffering is relative and real. He wrote two years ago that his family was ‘just getting by’ on more than $250,000 a year, setting off what he called a firestorm of criticism.

‘Yes, terminal diseases are worse than getting the flu,’ he said. ‘But you suffer when you get the flu.’ ”

 

” ‘I wouldn’t want to whine,’ Schiff said. ‘All I want is the stuff that I always thought, growing up, that successful parents had.’ ”

 

(My personal favorite is the “it’s a disaster” quote.  But that’s beside the point.)

What I want to think about for a moment is how each one of us, from billionaires to people making nearly nothing, are faced with choices every day.  (Alan Dlugash, an accountant quoted in the article, states, “If you’re making $50,000 and your salary gets down to $40,000 and you have to cut, it’s very severe to you… But it’s no less severe to these other people with these big numbers.”)  We each have to decide how we’re spending our money and our time, and all of us can sometimes be forced to make decisions and slash certain items, regardless of our total income.  Where do we choose to live?  Do we choose private school or public?  Do we choose cable TV or no?  Do we choose a restaurant meal or eating in?

This is our biggest and most important choice, though:  Are we recognizing our income and our ability to earn it as a gift from God, or are we looking at it as something that we worked hard for and earned on our own?  (America loves the idea of the “self-made man.”)  How we view the source of our finances should make a big difference in what we do with them.

Richard Foster defines “Inner Simplicity” in Celebration of Discipline:

First: receive what we have as a gift from God.

Second:  know that it is God’s business (not ours) to care for what we have.  We can trust Him.

Third:  have our goods available to others—“if our goods are not available to the community when it is clearly right and good, then they are stolen goods.”

“If we truly believe that God is who Jesus says he is, then we do not need to be afraid…the almighty Creator and our loving Father…we can share because we know that he will care for us.”

Are the financial choices I make as a believer reflective of God’s work in my life?  Am I allowing him to lead my use of our resources, putting Him first, and trusting him to faithfully provide?  Hopefully I will let God guide my choices, as I start with the choice to be thankful to Him for the gifts He has given my family.

One parting thought:  “There are two ways to get enough:  one is to continue to accumulate more and more.  The other is to desire less.” (–G.K. Chesterton)

“Better a little…”

“Better a little with the fear of the Lord than great wealth with turmoil.”  –Proverbs 15:16

“Turmoil” is such a strong word.  When I read about “great wealth with turmoil” I tend to think in a “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” sort of way; of people with indescribable amounts of money making poor choices and ending up in the headlines on a regular basis.  What I think we forget is how, compared to so many others on this earth, we have “indescribable amounts of money,” which we’re using to buy things, which are in turn sometimes causing us “turmoil.”  Or, at the very least, the Message version:  “a ton of headaches.”

For some reason I’ve been thinking a lot lately about our second apartment.  It was a tiny two bedroom, but I loved it:  it was nearly new, so it was incredibly clean, and it had a south-facing sliding glass door in the living area that looked out on the street, not another apartment.  In hindsight, I keep thinking about how small it was, but it was just exactly right for our needs at that time.  A living room, a kitchen big enough for a card table and two chairs, a bedroom, and a “bedroom” we could use as an office.  (Also a big bonus:  a laundry room, which was the deciding factor in moving there.)  That apartment represents simplicity for me:  small, clean, sparse, basic, yet pleasant–the sunny living room guaranteed that.  We didn’t have a ton of extra “stuff” because we didn’t have a ton of money (insert “we didn’t need money, we had each other” type of quote here), which kept the place clean and simple.  No turmoil, no headaches.

Let’s be real, though:  that was before kids and dogs.  If we had to fit our current family in that apartment, my feelings about it would be very different.  It wouldn’t be simple anymore; it would be cramped, crowded, and difficult.  (Where on earth would we seat everyone for dinner?)  So I’m not about to complain about the space we enjoy now.

What I need to be careful of, though, is how we fill that space.  More space doesn’t have to be filled.  What’s wrong with just enjoying….space?  Less turmoil, less headaches.

I asked my kids the other day, if they could keep just three things in their rooms, what would they be?  My pack-rat son answered immediately and decisively:  “My bed and my stuffed animals and my books.”  Even he, who is loathe to get rid of things, knew exactly what was most important to him.  (I won’t talk about how many stuffed animals and books there actually are.)  If we can keep the “stuff” in our spaces limited to what it truly important to us, keep it pared down to “a little,” we can hopefully save ourselves “a ton of headaches.”

Paper Clutter

Our desktop computer is in the shop….again.  The problem with the “again” part (aside from owning a clearly defective computer) is that it was taken someplace new to be repaired.  The “someplace new” required proof of purchase.  Of course I have the receipt, right?

Well, yes, I did have the receipt.  Unfortunately, it took me approximately fifteen to twenty minutes, looking in no less than ten spots in five different rooms, before I located it.  (It turned out to be exactly where it was supposed to be….long story.)  As I was digging through files and piles of paper, I was getting more and more irritated.  I really did clean out when we moved!  I thought I’d been staying on top of this!  How can we possibly still  have a Windows ’98 start-up guide?

In fairness to myself, we’ve been moving the “office” to an area of the kitchen, and so things are spread out much more than they normally are.  I don’t mean that to be an excuse, but the perfectionist in me needs to recognize that transitions are difficult.  It’s made it obvious to me, though, that even if I purged three years ago, it’s clearly time to do it again now:  especially if things are going to work well in the new area.

Why is paper so hard to deal with?  I think that the amount that comes into our homes, and the rate at which it comes, stacks the deck against us.  Even if I’m great at throwing junk mail into the recycling bin immediately (which I am), that still leaves “important” financial papers to be filed.  I’ve managed to curb most of those by going paperless, but somehow a few still come through.  And heaven forbid we get rid of anything pertaining to taxes; I feel like we’ve been brainwashed into thinking we’ve all got an audit looming just around the corner, so you’d better not throw those records out!  Paper clutter is the worst, I think, for the idea that “This is important!  You might need it someday!”  At its base is an issue of security; feeling safer because you have a file cabinet full of “just in case.”

I did a quick search on my Bible app and discovered that the word “trust” is used in the Psalms sixty-nine times.  None of those verses say anything about trusting in files and paperwork.  (But you knew that, right?)  The first three references that come up:

“Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.”  (Psalm 20:7)

“When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.”  (Psalm 56:3)

“In God I trust and am not afraid.  What can man do to me?”  (Psalm 56:11)

I’m closing with the words of Christ in John 14:1:  “Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Trust in God; trust also in me.”

(If you’ll excuse me, I need to clean out some files.)

 

The 100-Item Challenge

I remember reading a few months back about a “100-item challenge,” where minimalists were encouraging each other to pare down to only one hundred possessions.  Upon first reading, I burst out laughing—I have a hundred items in my two china cabinets!  (Turns out I only have fifty-six, but you get the idea.)  The more I read, the more I had to laugh.  Except for a few people who truly took this idea very seriously, it seemed that there were addendums and caveats around everything.  I understood how two shoes could equal one pair, but things started to get fuzzier when a set of plates—either four or eight—could be counted as “one” item.  My favorite exception was to not count the things the family shared.  Um…..that’s pretty much my entire house.

I appreciate the idea, though; the thought that the less we have, the more freedom we have.  And I was reminded of the challenge when I was reading the “Simplicity” chapter of The Pursuit of Discipline, by Richard Foster.   “De-accumulate!  Masses of things that are not needed complicate life.  They must be sorted and stored and dusted and re-sorted and re-stored ad nauseum.  Most of us could get rid of half our possessions without any serious sacrifice.”  (p. 92)

That, to me, is a challenge.  That is a concrete, specific, doable idea, with very little “fuzziness.”  That means half our books…. half our CD’s….half our shirts, pants, sweaters, etc…half the stuff in the china cabinets…..[Sentimentality enters, stage left:  “But, but, but!!!!”]  There are a concrete number of things we own, which can then be divided by two.  Is it possible?  Could I actually get rid of half of all these things “without any serious sacrifice”?

Richard Foster reminds us, in that same chapter, that “if our goods are not available to the community when it is clearly right and good, then they are stolen goods.”  Keep that idea in the back of your mind the next time you open a cabinet or closet.  I will be.